In less than five minutes in a new viral video, Jay Z sums up all the ways the US war on drugs has been what he calls an “epic fail.”
The musician, who teamed up with visual artist Molly Crabapple to make the 4-minute video, which appeared online at The New York Times, gets two key things right about the science of drugs and addiction.
1. Addiction is not a moral failing.
In his description of the beginnings of the drug war in the 1980s, Jay Z says, “No one wanted to talk about Reaganomics and the ending of social safety nets. The defunding of schools and the loss of jobs in cities across America.” Instead, he continues, “Young men like me who hustled became the sole villain and drug addicts lacked moral fortitude.”
This perception of drug addiction as a moral failing continues to pervade discussions of addiction, but it’s not aligned with the science.
Numerousneuroscientific studies reveal that addiction is a learned behavior – a “disease of learning,” as Harvard neurobiologist Steven Hyman has called it – that results in measurable changes to the brain. As such, young people learn to use and abuse drugs and alcohol, perhaps as a coping mechanism, and this results in fundamental brain changes that continue to affect them as they grow and develop. “Repeated drug use leads to long-lasting changes in the brain that undermine voluntary control,” write the authors of a 2004 study in the journal Nature.
Addiction “is a form of pathologic learning,” Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist and the author of the book “Unbroken Brain,” recently told Business Insider. “With addiction, overwhelming changes occur in the brain region involving areas that evolved for things like love and sex and feeding.”
2. Powder cocaine and crack cocaine are the same drug, but they do have slightly different effects.
Towards the middle of the video, Jay Z says “… the Feds made distinctions between people who sold powder cocaine and crack cocaine even though they were the same drug.”
“The only difference,” he says, “is how you take it.”
- Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
That’s largely true. Powder cocaine is usually snorted, but it can also be dissolved in water or melted and injected, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). A powder cocaine “high” from snorting the drug typically hits the user in a matter of minutes, while its effects peak at around 15 minutes. Overall, the high lasts roughly 30 minutes.
Crack cocaine, on the other hand, refers to powder cocaine that’s been processed with a base, like baking soda. This allows the body to absorb it very rapidly when it’s smoked. A “high” from inhaled crack cocaine can hit the user in seconds, and its effects peak in 3-5 minutes. The high lasts roughly 10 minutes.
Powder cocaine can also be injected, and this method typically “speeds up” the high, making it almost identical to the effects of crack cocaine, the NIDA reports.
In spite of all that, penalties for the possession of crack cocaine were historically much more severe. “The sentencing laws appear to unfairly target the poor,” NYU researcher Joseph J. Palamar told Vocativ. “Blacks ultimately [experienced] high incarceration rates as a result.”
It’s because of these two misconceptions, says Jay Z, that the war on drugs has been what he calls “an epic fail.”